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Johnson & Wales’ Culinary Museum: Greasin' Up the Griddle and Rollin' into History

Johnson & Wales’ Culinary Museum: Greasin’ Up the Griddle and Rollin’ into History – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – August 2003

Johnson & Wales’ Culinary Museum in Providence, RI Celebrates 130 Years of Diners

Jack Nicholson got angry in one. Kevin Bacon got famous in one. Rosie the Bounty waitress got tidy in one. So ensconced is the diner in American culture that it has affected our view on food and food service, our architecture, even our language and our art. The national love affair with the diner has never waned.

America’s roadside shrine, the diner started its long and eventful career in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1872. And now it has come back. The Culinary Archives and Museum at Johnson & Wales University in Providence has opened a remarkable exhibition that traces the equally remarkable history of that American icon, the diner. The images and artifacts that highlight “Diners: Still Cookin’ in the 21st Century” are all from the collection of guest curator Richard J. S. Gutman, a Massachusetts architect. Along with his wife Kellie O. Gutman, he has made the history and cultural impact of diners his life’s mission. Not a bad job, getting to try out most of the major beaneries and in the process saving a few from the wrecker’s ball.

“Because the Museum has the 1926, fifteen-stool Ever Ready Diner in its collection,” says Richard Gutman, “the director, Barbara Kuck, asked me to assemble a show about diners. I wanted to trace the colorful history of these unique restaurants, touching on the way they’ve reflected American culture.” That colorful history is one that belongs to us all. “Anyone,” as Gutman says, “feels comfortable in a diner.”

Diner lingo was years away in the late 1850s when it occurred to Walter Scott, a newspaper pressman, that the crews producing morning editions finished work in the early hours of the morning when all restaurants had long since closed. He began selling sandwiches, boiled eggs, pies, and coffee, hustling on foot from office to office. Before long, a whole variety of other workers were buying his wares. Scott acquired wheels, making his runs with a cart. His business thrived.

So it was in 1872 that Walter Scott made a fateful decision. He left his press room job, bought a horse and a small freight wagon, and rode off into history. A “lunch wagon” he called it, though his lunches were consumed in the middle of the night. From inside the wagon he dispensed homemade selections not unlike the familiar fare dished out in diners today.

Scott finally retired in 1917 at age 76. By that time, his success had spawned an entire industry. Sam Jones took the idea with him when he opened the first lunch wagon in Worcester, Mass., in 1887. It was the first vehicle that allowed customers to stand inside the wagon, protected from the elements. In many ways, they have never left.

Four years later, Charles H. Palmer obtained the first patent for a lunch wagon design. It set the standard for the next twenty years — a counter separated the kitchen from the “dining-room space” which accommodated seating. There was a walk-up window and a window for orders placed from carriages. Drive-thru, it seems, is not such a new concept after all. “They were the first fast food restaurants,” Gutman notes.

Worcester janitor Thomas H. Buckley sold oyster stew at local dances. His 1889 lunch wagon was a way to attract his scattered fans to one downtown location. But design, construction and promotion proved to be his true talents. By 1898, the Buckley Lunch Wagon and Catering Company was turning out as many as eight wagons a month. Buckley’s White House lunch wagons sprang up in 275 cities and towns around the country. This rolling empire won him the title of “Original Lunch Wagon King.” His reign unfortunately came to an end in 1903 when Buckley died suddenly at the age of 35.

Around the turn of the century, lunch wagons were allowed to remain open from dusk till dawn. As their business day drew to a close with the rising sun, they were obliged to pull up the steps and roll away home. But many workers were just heading off to work without breakfast. So, in defiance of the law, these night lunch wagons became breakfast wagons, expanding their day to as much as 18 hours. The wagons and their customers caused congestion. Complaints abounded, and most owners found an available lot and rolled the wagon onto it, permanently. Their loyal following now had to come to them. And come they did.

It was around that time that lunch wagons acquired some necessities and amenities, such as tile, electric lights, and toilets. Bayonne, New Jersey, bartender Jerry O’Mahony, the last of the diner pioneers, began in 1913 to build bigger, sturdier, higher quality structures, giving them a look of permanence inside and out. And they acquired a new name. Somewhere in the 1920s, lunch wagons turned into diners. They were aspiring to something besides the rowdy crowd that had first sustained them. The models of elegant dining at the time were the sleek Pullman cars that served fine food to train passengers. They were called dining cars, or diners for short. They shared a shape in common with lunch wagons and by 1924, they shared a name as well.

All that time on wheels the owners had devoted to hitching up the horses for the twice-daily move could now be devoted to making stews, baking pies, taking time to do things up right. What they did was create a cuisine. “Any of those diner folks back then would laugh at the thought,” adds Gutman, “but diner cuisine has lived on to become one of the most influential movements in American cooking.”

That movement’s motto was “Good food, cheap.” If it did not say that in so many words, that was the implicit promise of every diner: breakfast all day; eggs any style; side of bacon; toast; home fries; beef stew; grilled cheese; frankfurt on a roll; doughnut and coffee; apple pie and coffee. Home Cooking, the sign outside boasted. Diners had become second home to nighthawks and day trippers, high and low, young and old. They all got hungry at the odd time, and diners waited to dish up basic food, simply and quickly prepared. Gutman points out, “Though diners started out serving the working classes, they soon appealed to people from all walks of life.”

Except, for quite a number of years, to women. In the 1920s diners began to broaden their appeal. The return of veterans from World War I combined with the increase in automobile travel promoted diners as reliable sources of plain food at home and on the road. However women saw them like bars, as mostly male domains. But women were changing. They had gone to work in offices and factories during the war and in 1920 they won the right to vote. Diners responded with expanded menus, tables and booths, and the occasional waitress to serve them. It all worked. And as customers grew more numerous, so did diners.

Most diners survived the Great Depression because they represented a source of good food, cheap. Along with breadlines and big bands, the 1930s brought the passion for streamlined design to practically every aspect of American life, especially diners. Stainless steel, rounded corners, porthole windows, Art Deco interiors, metal stripes, and italic lettering. New diners were being built that way; old diners were trying hard to look like new diners. Ed Debevic’s and Johnny Rocket’s, two contemporary chains are copies of classic streamline diner styles.

Oddly enough, the 1940s were at first not a happy time for the diner industry. The vast majority of working people who had frequented diners were being shipped overseas to defend the nation’s interests. Rationing of food limited menus, and rationing of building materials halted new diner construction entirely. The major advance occurring during the war years was that women, who had been frequenting diners in greater numbers for two decades, began working behind the counters. The image of wisecracking waitresses slinging hash and sound advice is so ingrained in popular consciousness, it is hard to realize that women in the diner workforce have not always been there.

After the war, construction resumed with a new look, and diners’ popularity soared. They were growing larger to accommodate more customers. Many diners submitted to a sort of plastic surgery. With the changes came fancier menus and higher prices. The June, 1948 issue of the Saturday Evening Post carried an article entitled “The Diner Puts on Airs.” They were, to be sure, becoming respectable. They grew wider and much of the cooking moved backstage. Jukeboxes proliferated at counters and in booths, drawing a younger crowd. The baby boom ensured that it was indeed a crowd.

It is the Baby Boomers who have kept diners humming along happily into the 21st century. Chief among them is architect, author and Culinary Museum guest curator Gutman. “Though I grew up eating in diners,” he explains, “I took them for granted like everyone else. When I was in college in the late 60s, a group of visiting British critics opened my eyes to what was so special about these places. Nothing had been written about them, so I dove in headfirst. My research was visiting as many places as I could to interview the people who built them and ran them.” That research resulted in Gutman’s classic 1979 book, [amazon_link id=”B0026Q4JHG” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]American Diner[/amazon_link].

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Gutman’s expertise and his 14,000 images of diners have provided a rich lode of material from which he and Malcolm Grear Designers have fashioned the Culinary Archives & Museum exhibition. And as rich as the diner show is, it is but one of a number of displays that the Culinary Archives and Museum at Johnson & Wales has on view. Artifacts from ancient Rome to modern Manhattan compete for visitors’ attention. There are original documents related to food from every U.S. president, menus, cookbooks, postcards, trade cards, autographs, photographs, china, crystal, pots and pans, aprons and toques, ads, fads, and ironclads.

But holding its own alongside this wealth of material and well worth the trip to Providence is the diner exhibition. It is a surefire crowd pleaser. “People like diners,” says Gutman. “The exhibition will let people learn why diners look the way they do and how they came to be. It shows how they pervade our consciousness and are a part of American life.” They continue to be manufactured today. Old or new, diners established and maintain a classic American style, so beautifully embodied in the museum exhibition. And while Rosie is no longer around to clean up the spills, Jack Nicholson is still getting angry. Kevin Bacon is still famous. And diners are still rolling on, delivering good food to a hungry nation. And that is something that will never go out of style.

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